Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Divine Landscapes: The Writings of Ronald Blythe

Susan Southall

Picture of Ronald Blythe at home,  via the Daily Telegraph (London)

“In the Village Church where I often preach there are two kinds of window, that filled with clear glass and that with painted glass. In heavenly terms both have to be looked through, not at. Through the clear glass we glimpse nature — a cloud, a yew, a passing bird. Through coloured glass we glimpse other worlds than this.”

Spiritual Reading Group met in the Carmelite Library on Tuesday 21st October, where Susan Southall gave this introductory paper on Ronald Blythe, who is considered to be England’s finest country writer. He is a cathedral canon, lay reader, and preacher. He belongs to a tradition which sees the divine hand in a landscape filled with nature, history, literature and art. He calls himself ‘a listener and a watcher’: his unique style curves this way and that, relaxed and exact, both dreaming and real. Prayer, he says, is part of the pattern of life. Here is Susan’s opening paper, with quotes from some of Blythe’s work.

Early in 1947, Ronald Blythe was living near Aldeburgh, in a rented house found for him by the woman he describes as his muse: Christine, wife of the painter John Nash. Christine Nash had met Blythe while he was working in Colchester Library as a reference librarian, but he was leaving his job to undertake a career change while still in his twenties. John and Christine Nash became patrons to Blythe, who was determined, in his shy and quiet way, to become a writer.

On this snowy day, Blythe saw in the street E.M. Forster, who was staying in Benjamin Britten’s house for the Aldeburgh Festival. When Blythe got home, there was note from Forster inviting him to Britten’s place and when he got there, he found the living room covered in paper, pages spread over every available surface. Forster was writing a biography, and he had no idea how to construct an index. This was simple for Blythe, who made quick work of the pages, and that was his introduction to working at the Aldeburgh Festival.

Ronald Blythe is in his 93rd year now, in 2014. In 2013 he published the memoir of his association with the Festival, the artists, painters and musicians he knew at that time, for the centenary of Britten’s birth, and this book was received with much acclaim. A number of his books are collated from his weekly essays for Church Times, his diary entries, and sermons he preaches in his parish church: three of them! His latest volume records some 33 published works, most of them non-fiction, though he has written three novels and a book of short stories. He views himself as an essayist and poet, and the book that brought him early and lasting success is a longer work, Akenfield.

Akenfield (1969) gives voices to a vanished way of life, the agricultural world of rural villages that was passing away by the 1950’s. It was a world that revolved around the church in its daily, weekly and seasonal ceremonies. The world of The Book of Common Prayer. The artisans and farm workers Blythe interviewed lived in deep poverty, but they held a strong spiritual connection to the land. Akenfield was made into a film by Peter Hall, (with music by Michael Tippett, as Britten was too ill to contribute), and it has now become a classic.

The Blythe family has lived in Suffolk for centuries, near to the river of that name. Ronald Blythe has spent most of his time in East Anglia, in the house he inherited from John and Christine Nash, called Bottengoms Farm. It is by observing the passage of seasons through the surrounding countryside, the birds, plants, animals and weather, and the ritual year of the church, that Blythe gives expression to his spirituality.

Introducing Wormingford, the place where his farm is located, Blythe first says that it was the home of John Constable’s people. Blythe is said to write landscapes — and part of the landscape is the inhabitants — through history, literature and art. History isn’t linear but depth, layer after layer, over the landscape. He’s president of the John Clare Society, and has written about George Crabbe, the realist poet- parson, all these references slipping into the landscape and the seascape around him. In an essay about the sea, he says:

“There is Benjamin Britten's house. Sea-trained by his Lowestoft origins, he would have found the interior silences of my native scene sterile, maybe. No thud and crash of water, no pitiless distances, and an absence of drama. No glitter to life. What was sometimes wearying to me was reviving to him. George Crabbe, the great realist poet, heard the Aldeburgh sea calling to him wherever he went. He would make long journeys to it, just to breathe it in. His snowy bust looks up at Britten's memorial window in Aldeburgh church, and away from congregations.

“The Revd George Crabbe was given a hard time when he re- turned to Aldeburgh as a curate. But the mighty sea solaced him, and while he could be said to have taken his revenge in The Borough, an exposé of a poem if ever there was one, in his head the sea put all human behaviour in its place. And so here it is once more, diminishing, yet somehow praising us mortals.

“There are no oceans in the King James Bible, only seas, and these abundantly. Awe accompanies the many references to them. It was St Paul who used the word "peril" in relation to them. Most scriptural references show humanity acknowledging the sea's supremacy. Those who wrote them would not have heard of the Pacific or the Atlantic. They would have seen them as roads, and the Gospels have a marine flavour to them.”

This shows a little about the way Blythe works. He begins with something autobiographical, his own experience, with its interior silences, which immediately brings to mind Crabbe, whose poem The Borough inspired Britten to write his opera Peter Grimes. And from there he goes directly to the church, and its stained glass windows. And from there to the sea, the way humanity is put in its place. And from there to the King James Bible, and how the sea was anciently perceived: with awe. And then to the Gospels, and the voyages of Paul, who travelled on sea roads bringing the church to the world. So the church is central to his spirituality: it means he doesn’t have to be complicated about it. He isn’t going to be a person who says “”I’m spiritual but not religious.” He doesn’t even think he is particularly religious, either. And yet he is a churchman.

Blythe was once invited to become a priest, but he pointed out that he was far too quietly disposed ever to be able to run a parish. He spends hours, he says, daydreaming. He says he’s a Reader who happens to be a writer, and so there’s this deep well of sensibility to draw on. The oration for his honorary doctorate from the University of Essex says: he talks of “the living, the departed, the abundance, the dearth, the planets, the prayers, the holiness of things.”

An editorial from The Guardian for Blythe’s 90th birthday in 2012 notes that “tucked away on the back page of the Church Times each week is one of the most elegant and thoughtful columns in British journalism. Word from Wormingford mixes acute, elegiac rural observation with a strand of English mystical thinking that often seems to reach back to its 17th-century roots.”

From Word from Wormingford:               

“Reading has always been my way to the Way, always my way of knowing anything. I read the poet John Clare for his authoritative village sounds. One has only to open a page of him to hear every day of that Northamptonshire year, the cries, the grind, the song, the humanity, the creatures… I tell the flock about St. Thomas, that so-like-us man, who demanded physical proof of a spiritual reality. A week before him there was St. John of the Cross, Spain’s Traherne, with his daring Christian imagery, and who found that the very waiting for Christ enchanted the landscape, making the beautiful river country at Baeza distractingly lovely. For this writer scenery became the physical proof of his Lord. I have to make the best of outdoors on lessening days.” (17)

He’s telling us about his spirituality by telling us about other people’s spirituality. A domestic scene from Village Hours (2012):

“Forget the economy: the big question is: can I say at St. Andrew’s this Sunday what I said at SS Peter and Paul last Sunday? Would this be sloth, or a fair distribution of genius? The white cat sits in the window, grumbling at green woodpeckers devouring Waitrose chicken strips. It really is the limit.

“The day is grey and sweet. The wood is full of snowdrops. The study is piled with books. Epiphany is fading into Before Lent. There isn’t a sound except little animal-grousings…

“I have an ancient ash on which ivy has created or founded a kind of leaf city for countless creatures. It feeds on pond water, and generously sheds dead boughs for kindling. It has been here for ever: since 1900, say. It sings, along with its birds.”

There’s just this simple security. He writes: “A Medieval King would keep his Christmas at Woodstock or Westminster, or wherever he happened to be.  And God keeps us, wherever we happen to be.” He tells about the Christmas festivities when James I saw the play Twelfth Night, and Lancelot Andrewes was the preacher. And Andrewes forgot his lines. He says, “Nobody was more understanding than James, for whom the word ‘baby’ was so wonderful that he went on calling his son and lover this when they were in their 20’s, signing them ‘Your Dad and Gossip’. Seated below the pulpit, he heard Bishop Andrewes approaching the stable on Christmas morning with his theology pat, his severe face all set for the great occasion, his notes crackling in his hand.  And then — a newborn boy. The Saviour of mankind. The preaching went out of his voice, King and court went silent. Not a sound in the freezing chapel. But Andrewes was not in it; he was in Bethlehem. ‘An infant —the infant Word— the Word without a word— the eternal Word not able to speak a word— a wonder sure…” And Blythe says, “One should long ago have been surfeited with all this. How does it all stay so fresh? How do babies cause one to be at a loss for words? How strange it all is.”

All words quoted here are copyright Ronald Blythe. The Carmelite Library has a good and growing collection of his writings.

See also his blogspot:   wormingford.blogspot.com.au

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